Jerry Bonkowski, NASCAR Correspondent
NASCAR chairman Brian France said Saturday that the sanctioning body is continuing a dedicated program to improve racing, listen to fans more and to embrace new technology that is coming to the sport.
Speaking after a presentation of NASCAR joining other major U.S. sports leagues in being affiliated with the London-based Beyond Sport United, a group dedicated to using sport to improve people's lives around the world, France said improving racing and making it as good as it can be continues to be the focus of the organization.
"We're always working on it, we're getting better at some things, but it's been a good season," France said. "I think the storylines really dictates that at the end, and I think you're seeing Jeff Gordon on the outside looking in, that's a little early. I think the news we've made where wins are going to matter again as you come down the stretch and shape up, that's probably going to come into play. It's been a good, solid year."
France discounted reports that some drivers are unhappy with the way the new points system, implemented last season, has forced drivers this season to be more careful and less willing to take risks, lest they lose valuable points that ultimately could be the difference between winning and losing a championship – as seen the way Carl Edwards lost last year's title by a single point.
""Several drivers have complained? Wow, we've never had that before," France quipped. "That's racing. What can I tell you?"
But France conceded that listening to fans is one of the chief ways for both racing and the sanctioning body to improve.
"We listen and are very in-tune to the fan base with our fan council and everything else," France said. "We look at it a lot of different ways. You can look at lead changes, cycles of things, like more green flags than at any other time.
"You just can't snapshot it and give it a grade like that, but we look at it overall and look at things very carefully. We have a hard job, but it's our job to put rules forward to put the best competition to come forward and we've done that for the last 60-plus years. And it's not getting any easier with all the technology and the innovators in their own right, but we're zeroed in what we have to get done."
... we're focused on safety, that's a given.
NASCAR's Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., is taking a more proactive approach, particularly in developing new innovations and technologies going forward, particularly with a second-generation Car of Tomorrow that is set to debut in the Sprint Cup Series in 2013.
"Our goal is to always take moments with new cars and new opportunities to make the racing better, that's what we're after," France said. "(For example) there's a little bit of a small adjustment here with the (fender) skirts this weekend and trying to look at the aero pack. We're really repurposing the R&D center in a very good way.
"(NASCAR vice president) Steve O'Donnell has taken full charge of that responsibility so we can increase our focus on things that can make the racing better. Obviously, we're focused on safety, that's a given. But we're zeroed in on this aero issue and from time to time there's going to be other issues that we're able to get at those, like faster innovation. We think you're going to see some things like drying the track off in 20 percent of the time. We're working with companies that are helping with that technology to do that. It'll be a big breakthrough for the industry if we can do those things over time.
"So you're going to see the R&D Center take a much more active role in everything from performance on the track to innovations, and we're looking forward to that. We have a new car coming in 2013, so we want to make sure that we're as good as we can be in terms of the on-track quality of racing. We're putting more effort in to get that right. We also get thrown curve balls, like tandem racing, which fans didn't care for as much. So, from time to time, we have big things that affect the quality of racing. We just want to make sure we're able to get at those solutions faster and better and our group is going to do that."
France also addressed a couple of other issues in the sport:
. Danica Patrick: "She's brought visibility to the sport, which we knew we she would. Most importantly, she's made improvements. That's her stated goal and she's getting better and better and her runs reflect that. That will determine the impact in the end as how well she competes, and nobody knows that better than she does."
. Darrell Wallace Jr., a graduate of NASCAR's Drive For Diversity program who is making his Nationwide Series debut Sunday at Iowa Speedway: "It'll be big if he competes well. He's somebody with the most promising talent who is an African-American that has come through our diversity program. He has been dominant at the K&N Series, which is very competitive.
"There's a lot of talented sons of some of the best drivers here in the garage area that compete. He's winning and we'll see how it goes in the Nationwide this weekend with him. Look, that's a breakthrough if that materializes. And if not him, there's going to be somebody that's going to walk in the door and be a star and that's going to be very good for us. It's a very hard thing to do. You're talking about only 43 seats, really about 32 or 34 or so, and unseating some of these guys, they're the best in the world, so it doesn't surprise me that the climb is hard. But somebody's going to come and do it, and he may be the one. We'll have to wait and see."
As for Beyond Sport United, Nick Keller explained the purpose of the organization, which he founded four years ago and that NASCAR becomes the first motorsport body to join other major leagues including the NFL, Major League Baseball, NHL, NBA, Major League Soccer and the WNBA.
We're obviously very honored to be a part of what's going on at Beyond Sport
"It's a simple notion that sport is a special commodity, one that if used correctly can change communities and change society and uplift people and improve their lives, whether it be health, education, social inclusion issues and conflict resolution." Keller said. "The intention was always to unite people, to bring people together, whether it be the teams and leagues that traditionally compete against each other, whether it be the corporate sponsors and brands that use sports so comfortably to sell their products, or whether it be the grass roots leaders that do so much in their communities to change the circumstances of others using sports. The idea was to bring them together, blend them together and see what could be achieved as a great people, to see if we could take that fantastic energy, inspiration and passion that you can see all around you and the impact it has."
Keller is working closely with former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is chairman of Beyond Sport ambassadors, to use sport as a game-changer in life.
"Sitting here, I'm not surprised that I found my way here in a way because NASCAR's values of community, NASCAR's values of ingratiating itself not just into the sport but outside of the sport, fit so very well with what we do," Keller said. "You don't have to do dig very deep to see there's some real credibility for the rest of the sports world to learn, whether it be through the NASCAR Foundation, that has had such a long history of philanthropy and volunteering, whether it be NASCAR Green, which is a standard bearer within sports in a way, because it's the largest recycling program within sport, and Drive For Diversity, which actually is probably the standard bearer not just in sports but outside of sport, as well, which so many corporates could learn so much from that around the world."
When members of his organizational team came to him with the idea of joining Beyond Sport United, France felt it was a no-brainer for NASCAR to become involved.
"We're obviously very honored to be a part of what's going on at Beyond Sport," France said. "The idea is that leagues, teams, athletes come together to share their best practices and what they're doing. It puts us on a big stage, which we're excited about because of what all the team and individual drivers are doing. Frankly, it matches probably with the direction we're going. We're investing more with kids, we're certainly focused on the environment and giving back to different communities."
NASCAR drivers Jimmie Johnson and Juan Montoya were also on hand to discuss the significance of NASCAR joining forces with Beyond Sport.
"I'm proud of our sport and proud of the association," Johnson said. "Pretty much every driver has a foundation or does something to support other charities and driver foundations. This is a perfect fit and I'm very proud of the effort and work that the Jimmie Foundation has done and look forward to sharing our best practices and learning more and just trying to give back."
Added Montoya, "When we created our foundation, Formula Smiles, the most important thing was the kids, because the kids are the future. We in Colombia have signed up 5,000 kids already. For me, the kids are our future, and if you can take them off the streets, teach them something, how to be a team player, how to be a better person, I think is really important. I think this is going to be huge for the communities."